Man Shot Down I is one of fifteen canvases that belong to the series 18. Oktober 1977. The series depicts the terrorist group Baader-Meinhof and the traumatic events of the German Autumn (events in Germany in late 1977 associated with actions of terrorists from Red Army Faction and further police persecution of adherents of left ideology). The Baader-Meinhof committed numerous crimes, including murder and kidnapping, that resulted in the imprisonment and conviction of the group’s leadership. In an attempt to negotiate their release, other members kidnapped the businessman and industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer and hijacked a Lufthansa plane in Somalia. On the night of October 17, 1977, the state ran a successful operation and was able to recover control of the hijacked plane. The next morning, three of the convicted leaders were found dead in their cells, and the fourth was injured with multiple stab wounds. Even though the official reports concluded it was suicide, many speculated that the prisoners were murdered. After the press had announced their deaths, Schleyer was executed by his kidnappers.
In developing the concept for the series, Richter began with collecting images related to the event, photographs released by the police, and pictures published in the German press. These were the basis for all the paintings in the series. Man Shot Down I shows the image of Andreas Baader, co-founder of the Baader-Meinhof, who was found shot in the head in his cell. Richter used the gaze of the camera as a starting point and created a ‘blur effect’ with layers of gray, that obscured many of the details. Art critics have linked Baader’s posture in Man Shot Down I to historical artworks, which portray the dead body, such as depictions of the Pieta and Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793).
Although Richter selected a controversial political moment in contemporary history, he did not intend to make a political statement in his paintings. Richter’s painterly treatment creates a sense of elusiveness: it is a way to amplify the distance from the actual events and show that there are no answers available. The series deals with broad themes of death, suffering, and grief. Richter recognized the complexity of the situation: the horrible crimes committed by the terrorists, the institutional failures that led to the radicalization of these young people, and their deaths, which were a gruesome event in itself. By addressing the events ten years after the fact, Richter touches upon concepts of collective memory, and the public’s ability to recollect or repress events from contemporary history.
Richter wished to keep the series in one place, and to present it to the public as a whole. In 1995, the entire series was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The acquisition caused considerable controversy, as many felt that the paintings were nationally significant and should remain in Germany. Richter’s series dealt with an event deeply entrenched in the collective memory of the people of West Germany, and some questioned the effectiveness of the series on non-German audiences. For Richter, however, this was an opportunity to distance the paintings from the local political debate. By opening the series to new audiences, there was a possibility to transform the paintings into non-specific artworks that addressed universal themes of human suffering and mourning.